‘I don’t want more victims’: Why Belarus’ opposition leader is still pushing peace

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A year has passed since a presidential election put Alexander Lukashenko in the seat of power once again, despite enormous protests, public outrage and allegations of fraud. People took to the streets in their thousands and were met by flashbang-throwing, nightstick-swinging officers from the special OMON riot police division.

In the three days following the election, thousands of protesters were beaten and hauled away in police trucks to prisons all over Belarus. The voice of the Belarusian opposition, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, was also detained. When she was let out, after being paraded on national television in a video, where she was seemingly forced to denounce the protests, she left the country with her children.

Cut to August 2021 and Alexander Lukashenko is still in power, seemingly undeterred by demonstrations, strikes and sanctions from the West. In Belarus, 637 people (as of Aug 23) are now being held behind bars as political prisoners, according to the NGO Viasna 96. Add to that the potential death toll from the protests and their aftermath, which is currently impossible to source officially.

“Was it all worth it?” Euronews asked Tsikhanouskaya. Speaking from Lithuania, the key opposition figure took a moment to think.

“We cannot ask this question: Was it worth it? Everybody has to answer that for himself. But I am sure that the feeling of dignity, this change of the society, is important, but of course, when we talk about cruelty, torture and dead people, we can’t say that it was worth it,” Tsikhanouskaya told Euronews.

“I would prefer to live a normal life with my beloved husband and my children. But we cannot change the past. I am here now, where I am, and I cannot change that, and I understand that if I stop, thousands of people will stay in jail for years. Regrets or no regrets will not change anything.”

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From overnight national icon to international campaigner

Tsikhanovskaya was thrown into politics when her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, was imprisoned after running against Lukashenko in the 2020 election. Later, she took up the mantle and decided to run for president. With two other women, they became the face of the opposition, running a campaign calling for free elections. Now, her work has turned outward as she has been spending the past year shaking hands with leaders of the Western world.

“I am campaigning for support for the civil society fighting the regime. It is important to keep Belarus on the agenda. We are explaining why we are fighting and what we haven’t come through with. We try to get political help from democratic countries who can use the leverage of economic pressure and impose sanctions. We understand that sanctions are not silver bullets but they will help,” said Tsikhanovskaya.

“The sanctions make businesses around Lukashenko wonder if they are ready to lose everything because of the isolation of Belarus. Since sanctions were imposed, we had communication with businesses who ask for help to get off the sanctions list. It is a sign that they are not happy with the policies of Lukashenko,” said Tsikhanouskaya. While for many it is only a sign that business owners are not happy with the sanctions, it’s clear the embattled Belarusian president’s actions have brought them about.

At the end of June this year, the EU imposed a fourth package of sanctions. These have targeted technology and equipment for monitoring or intercepting internet or phone communications, technology and goods for the military, and the trade of petroleum products, potassium chloride and tobacco. Access to EU capital markets has also been restricted.

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‘Nobody is safe now’

The sanctions came as a response to the hijacking of the RyanAir flight from Athens to Vilnius and the following arrest of Roman Protasevich, an open critic of the Lukashenko government and one of the people behind the Telegram channel Nexta, and also actively calling for demonstrations and organising protests.

After his arrest, Protasevich was interviewed by state television. For 90 minutes the activist talked about his faults, mentioned that Lukashenko had “balls of steel,” and berated the opposition of which he had recently been a part.

“He appears here and there and his girlfriend also gave some interviews, but we don’t pay much attention to these interviews. When we see Roman on the screen, we say “Thank God!” that he is alive. We know we don’t have to pay attention to his words and take them seriously. He is a hostage,” Tsikhanouskaya told Euronews.

Feelings of uncertainty in the Belarusian diaspora were rekindled with the death of another prominent activist, Vitali Shishov, who was found hanged in a forest in the western part of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. The official cause is yet to be determined.

“We can speculate on this case, but we all unconsciously understand what happened to Shishov. But we cannot comment on this until the investigation will end. I have to say that nobody is safe now, and the strategy of the regime and these demonstrative cases is to show, that everyone is a target,” Tsikhanouskaya said.

‘Stop with the flowers’

Following Shishov’s death, a demonstration and vigil were held outside the Belarusian Embassy in Kyiv. His girlfriend Bazhena Zholudz spoke through tears and called for the posters and the flowers, peaceful elements the Belarusian protests are known for, to be replaced by pitchforks.

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A criminal case against Zholudz has been opened by the Belarusian authorities as she, according to them, “called for mass riots coupled with violence and armed resistance to the authorities.”

On the accusation of tameness, Tsikhanouskaya is resolute.

“Of course, I got a lot of criticism like “stop with the flowers” and “we need to be stronger in our actions,” but I really don’t want more victims, and if the Belarusian people respond with violence, we don’t know what the regime will do. They will have an excuse to be more violent. So, I think we need to keep the resistance peaceful, but I don’t condemn those who have other opinions,” Tsikhanouskaya admitted.

Still, the peaceful protest movement has one year later not achieved any of its main goals. Lukashenko is still in power, and while Tsikhanouskaya does not recognise him as the president, he continues to call the shots. How long can this go on?

“I can’t set a date, because it can take months,” Tsikhanouskaya maintained.

“I hope the collapse of the regime will start in the near future when sanctions hit the regime. If you think “oh, it will take five years,” … we can’t allow ourselves to think like that. Our friends are suffering in jail, so you have to make this period as short as possible and not think “oh, maybe not this year.”

Every weekday, Uncovering Europe brings you a European story that goes beyond the headlines. Download the Euronews app to get a daily alert for this and other breaking news notifications. It’s available on Apple and Android devices.

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